Newport Historical Society’s 2021 Annual Meeting — The History We Are Making Now

June 23, 2021

The past 15 months might have been expected to slow an organization down. But in fact this period accelerated some processes that were already begun at NHS and also started us down some new paths. In the biggest picture sense, we have affirmed our commitment to an audience-based focus for our work. Yes, we preserve and protect collections, but increasingly we are focused on the question of “for whom?”

The pandemic year highlighted the fact that the NHS, its program activities, and its collections are of interest to an audience broader than our geographic location and larger even than the cohort of visitors who come to historic Newport. Our online resources reached an international audience, and we were able to assist researchers from around the world. But, we also realized that our value as a repository and as a source for public history is not that well known, and we need to learn to market and publicize our activities and resources better. This is true in all aspects of our activities. Even at the back 0f the house – collections and research – the capacity to reach a broader audience exists.

The pandemic created an urgency for us to focus on letting researchers know the extent of what is in NHS’ hands. We were aware that the scope and depth of our (especially manuscript) collections were not well known, but as we could no longer simply encourage people to visit, we needed another way to demonstrate this effectively. We produced robust online indices and rapid reference images so patrons could make use of all aspects of our collection remotely.

Our collections staff discovered that some of the functions of old-fashioned reference librarians were still useful: finding sources, transcribing and reading documents, and providing data to those who needed research materials during this period. And we could charge for this, since the total bill was often quite a bit lower than a trip to Newport, and we generally provided more information than a short research trip would have yielded.

We are also actively working with colleagues in the non-profit world and in the commercial zone to increase our ability to reach audiences. Examples include the collaborative joint edition of both of our Journals with the Rhode Island Historical Society, the two-site exhibit with the Audrain Automobile Museum, and making our collections part of a visual database on the American Gilded Age created by a commercial entity. All of these things bring our collection to where new audiences are.

Programmatically, the NHS is focusing on collecting this moment in history through work like our “History in the Making” program, which takes traditional oral history and makes it visual. We are interviewing members of our community about the past year, and this moment, and editing the videos for presentation to the public and for maintenance as a digital archive. We are also focused on continuing to provide historical data and context for this time in American history. As a nation, we are wrestling with historic racial inequities. With the coming anniversary of the American Revolution, we are also considering how we think generally about our founding, and our founders. These are areas where Newport’s history has relevance.

We are also focusing on long-term transition planning. We recognize that in these times, as the world changes around us, there is not a lot of room for complacency. We must develop a culture of assessment: of our own activities, our field, and the world. And we need to ensure the continuity of a tradition of innovation, nimbleness and thoughtfulness in the years ahead. These things must be built into the NHS culture, so that when Board and staff leaders do depart, the institution continues to foster what we have built in the last decade, and what we continue to develop now.

The NHS maintains a rolling strategic planning process, and a committee of Board and staff is now working to update our goals in light of what we have learned, and to put strategies and plans in place. Tentatively, we have identified communications including marketing, and a comprehensive assessment of new mission-based uses for some of our properties as two goals. Continuing to expand our audiences, especially among those we do not currently serve well, is the third area for attention in the year ahead. We are moving ahead with reaching these goals as we formulate them. We have solicited and are reviewing proposals from marketing and communications firms to assist with the first goal. Regarding properties, we have released a statement of intent calling for interested potential preservation partners for the Wanton Lyman Hazard House, in an effort to develop an innovative new use for that important place.

As far as audiences go, we have obtained a great deal of information about our audiences this year. The American Alliance of Museums/Wilkening national survey, in which we participate, has revealed information that runs the gamut from expected, to surprising to perplexing.

One important thing that we learned is that our audience for whom we have contact information: our members, supporters, and program attendees, does not overlap very much at all with the visitors to the museum, who are generally tourists. We know our audience is segmented – tourists, local residents, scholars – but the difference here is stark in regards to our Museum of Newport History.

Museum visitors, whom we surveyed with an anonymous paper survey in the gallery, love the museum, and almost universally found it by walking past. They do not consume our online offerings or come to lectures. Local members almost never visit the Museum, and say they find it dull and unchanging. They, on the other hand, and unusual for Museum audiences today, consume our virtual content with enthusiasm, and want us to do more of it.

One thing that both audiences do have in common is that they come to us wanting to learn something. All the social activities and feelings associated with museums are not what they are after. Museumgoers tell us that they walked in because they wanted to learn about history. Local members, overwhelmingly, tell us that they join us because they are interested and curious.

Data also confirms that our local audiences are nearly 95% white, educated, and over 50, while the Museum audience is younger and more diverse. This data, and much more, helping us to explore how we can reach out to those who are not currently engaging with us as we plan for a vibrant, useful and successful future.